Monday, 27 November 2017

Dr George Lewis, “Framed to Forget: Rethinking Segregationists in American Public Memory”, 8th November 2017

The final talk of this semester’s Hook Centre Seminar Series was delivered by Dr George Lewis, Reader in American History at the University of Leicester. Lewis gave a fascinating paper that explored how American public discourse has come to terms with the history of segregation, encompassing a discussion of national memory, race and racism. Lewis began by focusing on the presence of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at Selma during their respective presidential campaigns, before moving into an exploration of the roles that the media cast protesters and segregationists into (both in 2007 and during the Selma protests themselves).

Lewis argued that national memory of race and racism has often been shaped at symbolic locations (or in his words, sites of “curated memory”) such as Selma. He stated that in March 2007 the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama and Clinton, both attempted to “drape themselves in the memory of Selma”, hoping to make their presence at this historical site appear simultaneously meaningful and effortless. Focussing on Obama’s rhetoric in particular, Lewis discussed how the future president tried to situate himself within this national narrative - a narrative that tracked the progress towards racial equality and hailed the protesters at Selma as ‘true Americans’. By implication, this narrative also positioned opponents of civil rights as the opposite: inherently ‘un-American’ until they were ready to seek redemption for their beliefs. Lewis offered up George Wallace as an example of a redemptive ‘un-American’. Wallace, an avowed segregationist, paid lip service to racial equality once his long-held views on race were deemed socially unacceptable.

Shifting focus, Lewis began to consider how segregationists were presented during the Selma protests. His main source material was photography used in mainstream northern-American, liberal media to document the protests. This material was supported by Lewis’ exploration of the later-published collections of individual photographers, and editorial material that never made it to print. Using these sources, he argued that the images used to represent white segregationists portrayed them as two-dimensionaland lacking agency”, thus distorting the narrative of post-movement racial politics. While protesters were presented visually as multi-faceted agents of change, segregationists were often portrayed as a “single brittle line” of protesters. However, this only proved to simplify a very complex struggle. Lewis considered the notion that this could just be a coincidence but argued that, since alternative photos were taken but never used, the white, liberal press deliberately constructed and disseminated a narrative that understated the pervasive nature of Jim Crow segregation. These images also failed to represent other issues like voter registration and economic segregation, thus allowing white liberal audiences to underestimate the complexities of the broader civil rights struggle.

Lewis concluded that the simplification of the deeply complex race issue allowed segregationists an easy route to relieve their conscience and, more importantly, restore their public image. The ease in which they could navigate this redemptive narrative’ (seen from 1965 onwards) shaped and misinformed the national and international understanding of how deeply engrained racial attitudes remained in certain localities and families. In the twenty-first century, the simplified narrative wrongly lead observers to rule the Selma victory as marking the beginning of the end for segregation. Those who prematurely celebrated a ‘post-racial’ America in the wake of President Obama’s election have quickly come to recognise the reality of the situations in the wake of President Trump’s. Obama himself stated earlier this year that much still remains to be achieved in the enduring civil rights struggle.

Overall, Lewis’s paper was informative and engaging, a fitting addition to the series that maintained the high standard achieved thus far. It engendered lively discussion during the subsequent Q&A session, including reference to modern issues including the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the role of historians in helping the public grapple with modern history. Given the Hook Centre’s interest in public engagement and knowledge exchange, these issues felt like a fitting conclusion to the semester, and we hope to see many of you at the series in the New Year.

Sarah Thomson
PGT American Studies
University of Glasgow

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics

On Wednesday, March 23rd the Centre was delighted to welcome as guest lecturer Kristin Hoganson, Professor of History and Gender and Women's studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor at the Rothermore American Institute, Oxford. With her lecture, Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics’, Professor Hoganson gave us a very informative and thought-provoking taster of her forthcoming book on the local history of the US heartland, Once Upon a Place: The U.S. Heartland Between Security and Empire (Penguin Press, in progress).

Through the analysis of Midwestern farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Professor Hoganson reconsidered the concept of isolationism that, in light of today's Brexit debate, seemed especially relevant. One of the questions posed was whether it makes any sense at all to talk about isolationism and Professor Hoganson’s answer is clear from the very start: isolationism is a myth. In fact, we can never fully understand the history of a place without relating it to a wider context. While in today’s globalized world it might seem obvious to acknowledge wide-ranging interactions between people, communities and countries across the world, the study of the rural Midwest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is still largely based on the false assumption of its insularity. Indeed, although an increasing number of historians have been analysing the US from a global history perspective, the Midwest continues to be narrated from a local perspective, perpetrating this, as Hoganson put it, 'isolationist legend'.

By focussing on the farmers’ alliances, and specifically those of the Champaign County, Illinois, Hoganson brought to light the need to adopt a more international perspective, recognising, in this particular case, the extent and range of collaborative experiences that transcended local and national borders. Farmers formed a web of connections to exchange information and knowledge to improve the quality of their livestock or agricultural produce, protect themselves against bad weather, and   exchange information and access new scientific agricultural discoveries. For example, the farmers' preference for the Italian bees over the domestic variation, because more prolific and better honey gatherers or the introduction of worms and soil bacteria from Europe, suggest an awareness of what was happening in other parts of the world and are evidence of information circulation and exchange across local and national borders.

A more global approach provides us with a better understanding of the farmers’ level of transnational relations but can also offer a better understanding of the trans-imperial dimension of their collaborative endeavours. Traditional writings on imperialism, by focusing on the outward movement from the centre to the periphery, for instance when looking at US exports, overlook the fact that the interaction between the centre and the periphery is in truth two-way exchange in which the centre is influenced as much as the periphery. In this case for example, Midwestern farmers looked at Britain as their main export market for corn and livestock. But the insistence on British markets risks to obscure the multidimensional and reciprocal relations that farmers entertained  internationally. Farmers looked at Britain not only because it was their main market, but also as a source of pure-bred stock. The introduction of the Berkshire hog is an interesting example as it reveals how this transnational collaboration underscored a narrative of empire. An animal of English origins, the Berkshire pig had been crossed, before reaching the United States, with Chinese or Siamese stock. Interestingly, once in the US, any acknowledgement of the Chinese or East Asian side of the breed was omitted. The 'improved' cross was marketed as a purely Anglo-Saxon breed, and became, to use Hoganson' s words, an ‘imperial animal’. This suggests how farming and agriculture were means to assert racial superiority and articulate a discourse that also confirmed American commitment to empire.

Professor Hoganson' s long standing interest in the history of the United States in a global context, illustrates how a transnational perspective can be applied to different aspects and experiences in American history. A  great example (I admit it- I am indulging my personal research interests here!) is another one of  Hoganson's publications, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (University of North Carolina, 2007), which analyses the centrality of consumption, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in US globalization narratives. Rather than examine US foreign relations by bringing the attention to diplomatic and military efforts or economic expansion, the focus of this study is the bourgeois American home at the turn of the century, which Professor Hoganson defines as the place where the local and global connected.  In stark contrast with writings of the time that portrayed the home as an isolated haven, the domestic space was in reality shaped by the international context through the middle and upper classes' purchase of foreign commodities. However, consumers' wish to engage with the wider world was not a demonstration of open-mindedness but of their privileged position in the marketplace and participation to the politics of empire, which often carried with it a narrative of racial superiority.

These case studies, the Midwestern farmers' alliances and consumers' roles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrate how topics borrowed from cultural and social history, such as migration histories, cultures of consumption, borderlands contacts, cultural exchange among communities, enrich traditional narratives of empire often limited to war and trade. This broader framework also brings to the fore the inadequacies of a provincial approach to local history that obscures the role of empire in shaping US history, urging us to rethink the boundaries of local history.  By discarding the notion of place as something delimited by rigid borders, Hoganson uncovers Midwestern connection to global history through a multi-directional web that went beyond the search for foreign markets, revealing that despite the fact that the word 'isolationism' still gains currency today, locality was and is nothing more than political fiction.

Bianca Scoti
PGR at The University of Glasgow

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Rusting Giants: Sculpture and Big Steel in the 1960’s

Dr Alex Taylor of the Tate Gallery presented a seminar on ‘Rusting Giants: Sculpture and Big Steel in the 1960’s’ in which he drew attention to the connection between US industry and US modern art.  The focus of Dr Taylor’s paper was the involvement of the US Steel Corporation in the construction of the ‘Chicago Picasso’ which was built using their Cor-Ten alloy.  Cor-Ten, launched in 1933, was an alloy patented to US Steel and promoted for industrial use because of its resistance to corrosion.  Cor-Ten developed an outer layer of corrosion when exposed to the elements and although it required more steel than aluminium buildings, it had a higher profit margin because costs, such as painting, were eliminated. 

The steel industry faced a problem because rust had negative associations and US Steel itself was described as the ‘rusting giant’.  Rust was visible to the public and was viewed as evidence of bigger problems that were affecting the industry.  In an effort to improve its corporate image and promote itself as a community partner, US Steel began to promote the use of Cor-Ten for public projects, such as the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  Although Cor-Ten had been around since the 1930’s, US Steel promoted its use in the 1960’s as innovative and progressive.

The success of the John Deere Administration Centre in Illinois in 1964 led to US Steel promoting Cor-Ten for architectural purposes and by the late 1960’s there were a burgeoning number of buildings which had used the material.  US Steel itself used it for its own new building in Pittsburgh.  In a significant change in the perception of steel, Cor-Ten’s skin of rust was seen as a sign of beauty and durability, rather than decay. 

Cor-Ten was used to build the Chicago Civic Centre in 1967 and this led to the ‘Chicago Picasso’ sculpture on the same site also using Cor-Ten.  This was the first prominent use of the material in a public context.  Until then, artists had previously used stainless steel for their sculptures.  During the planning of the sculpture, Picasso had avoiding committing to using a particular material.  However, he did approve the use of Cor-Ten after being shown the material and the modifications to his design which would be needed for practical reasons.  It is interesting to note that Picasso, who donated his sculpture to the people of Chicago, never visited the city or saw the finished product.

US Steel played a role in promoting the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  American Bridge, which was a division of US Steel, produced the sculpture at a cost of $300,000 which was much cheaper than producing the sculpture using a material such as bronze.  US Steel’s public relations staff recognised the potential of the ‘Chicago Picasso’ in showcasing Cor-Ten.  The Civic Centre and its sculpture were considered a work of art which had positive repercussions for US Steel.  Not only did the sculpture promote the potential of their material as artistic and durable, it also promoted the company as interested in the cultural life of the community.

As Dr Taylor explained, the ‘Chicago Picasso’ was not US Steel’s first foray into the art and cultural life of America.  The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair displayed ‘The Unisphere’ – a stainless steel representation of Earth which had been made by US Steel.  The company realised the promotional value of the sculpture, which represented global interdependence, and a mandatory credit line was attributed to US Steel.  The company’s subsidiary, American Bridge who had produced the ‘Chicago Picasso’ also displayed Picasso’s maquette in 1966 before the sculpture was unveiled in 1967.  Picasso’s modernist refusal to explain the sculpture’s meaning led to interpretations of steel as being positive and progressive.  As a result, Cor-Ten showed US Steel as innovative despite the material having been invented thirty years previously.  Rather than steel being viewed as toxic and decaying, US Steel were able to focus on it durability and aesthetic value.

The ‘Chicago Picasso’ was theatrically unveiled to a crowd of 50,000 in August 1967.  Public and religious leaders were present, speeches were made and a Presidential telegram was read.  US Steel had a documentary made about the building which was shown on TV.  Apart from highlighting the positive aspects of their material, Dr Taylor pointed out that it also promoted the idea of masculine labour activity.  The sculpture was used in US Steel adverts and Cor-Ten was described as ‘handsome’, another gendered attribute.  Being so closely associated with the ‘Chicago Picasso’ enabled US Steel to portray itself as being concerned with civic aesthetics, community engagement and social responsibility, as well as its corporate interests.  The company also successfully used this opportunity as a political lobbying tool and successfully secured limitations on the import of foreign steel.  US Steel also donated Cor-Ten to art schools in return for them supplying photographs of the students’ art which would be placed in US Steel’s corporate magazine.  The schools they donated to were often in areas with connections to the steel industry and their efforts once again presented them as a socially responsible corporation.

Although the 1930’s-created Cor-Ten had been lauded for architectural and artistic purposes in the mid-20th Century, its shine began to wear off when it became apparent it was highly problematic for use in sculpture.  US Steel’s claim that Cor-Ten was ‘self-repairing’ was not the experience of those trying to conserve it and they were instead faced with a material which had a very fragile surface finish.  By 1981, destruction and decay were again seen as symbolising steel and the industry itself.  Despite their earlier self-promotion through the ‘Chicago Picasso’, US Steel refused to sponsor one of the artist’s latter exhibitions.

Dr Taylor’s paper was an interesting juxtaposition to Professor Glenn Willumson’s seminar during last year’s Centre for American Studies seminar series.  In ‘Exploiting the Archive: The Photographs of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad’, Professor Willumson focused on the photographic archives of the Central Pacific Railroad Company.  In the same way Central Pacific used material culture to promote their agenda, it appears US Steel acted in similar ways to promote Cor-Ten through its association with the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  Central Pacific highlighted the importance of technology, innovation and progress to their project to ‘sell the dream’ to the public and investors.  US Steel promoted Cor-Ten as innovative (despite its thirty year history), durable and culturally relevant in its efforts to convince consumers, and the public, of steel’s worth and relevance to mid-20th Century America. 

Valerie MacKenzie

PGR – University of Glasgow

The next lecture will be given by Prof. Kristin Hoganson (University of Illinois and University of Oxford) and is entitled: ‘Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics.’ This will take place at 5.15pm on Wednesday 23rd March 2016, and will be held in Room 208, 2 University Gardens. All very welcome    

Monday, 14 March 2016

Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics

On 12 November 2008, Rebecca Traister wrote that ‘the exoticism and difference of Obama’s race was all the progress the American people could take in one election […] A threateningly competent woman might put them over the edge’[1]  The article referred in particular to Michelle Obama’s self-portrayal, in her speech at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, as mother, wife, daughter and sister rather than the successful independent woman that she was. Certainly the article passed a far too hasty judgment on a woman that had just become first lady, but Traister was not the only one lamenting a return to stifled gender stereotypes as Americans wished to put behind the image of a  ‘power hungry’ (the media’s favourite attribute when referring to Hillary Clinton)Democrat first lady. In truth, the plethora of articles on Mrs Obama’s toned arms and unlikely comparisons with Jackie Kennedy for their passion for fashion and glamorous look, far too often have obscured her accomplishments as first lady.

As the Obamas get ready to move out from the White House, the Centre , on Wednesday 9th March, welcomed Dr Elizabeth ‘Jody’ Natalle, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, contributor and co-editor, with Jenni Simon, of  ‘Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor’ (New York and London: Lexington Books, 2015). In an insightful and engaging lecture, ‘Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics’, Dr Natalle explained why the study of Michelle Obama’s rhetorical strategies enhances research on American first ladies. Michelle Obama is a ‘first’ first lady on many levels. She is not only the first African American and the first social media first lady that the country has ever had, but she has also changed the way we look at American women, motherhood and the definition of family in the White House.

Dr Natalle, who has a background in gender and communication studies, demonstrated how an interdisciplinary approach can offer a deeper understanding of American first ladies and indeed, a new angle in feminist studies. From the fusion of rhetorical and cultural studies approaches, Michelle Obama emerges as a first lady that has been able to use her power of persuasion in such innovative ways that greatly benefited her agenda and that eventually brought her to be more successful than her husband who, on the contrary, has met with strenuous opposition on every political project.

The examples here are many, from speeches, photographs (apparently no first lady has ever before shown her bare arms in official photographs), or campaigns. One of the most ground-breaking strategies that Mrs Obama adopted was the enlisting of what Dr Natalle defines ‘co-rethors’,  collaborators, not necessarily from a political background, to help her persuade her audiences. In her Let’s Move!  campaign to fight childhood obesity promoting healthy eating and exercise, the First Lady recruited the White House chef and even Big Bird from Sesame Street. In the Join Forces campaign, which addressed military families, Obama collaborated  with Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, again something unprecedented as first ladies don’t usually work closely with  vice presidents’ wives.  The idea of collaboration has been a feminist political ideal since the 1960s, demonstrating the First Lady’s engagement with feminist theory and the belief that change can only happen through cooperation, which starts within the family to gradually include the whole society. The words Michelle Obama frequently uses also highlight her attempt to build a community effort around her campaigns: for instance, the overuse of the word ‘we’ suggests a will to include everyone, the children as well as their parents, redefining the notion of health as something that can be accomplished intergenerationally.

To those still fearing that Mrs Obama represents a return to the role of first lady as primarily wife and mother, we could reply that she used these gender stereotypes to her advantage to claim an identity that is not subordinate to that of her husband.  The creation of the ‘mom-in-chief’ brand is an example of this, suggesting that the first lady holds a parallel, not inferior, role to that of her husband, commander in chief. Mrs Obama transformed the notion of Republican motherhood itself.  She never made motherhood look easy and acknowledged the need for help by bringing her mother into the White House. This is a revolutionary act in its own right, as the presence of grandparents is common within the African American or ethnic communities but extremely rare in white Anglo-Saxon families and new in the presidential family model.

Through a pluralistic approach that analyses communication at different levels, be they photographs, choice of words, symbolic actions, we see a first lady who represents the history of America in which race, gender and class can equally be barriers and opportunities. But Michelle Obama is not simply a symbol. She represents the struggle of every modern woman who has to juggle many roles and who overcomes gender, race and class stereotypes, negotiating them to further her agenda, and welcoming the concept of diversity as a strength rather than a divisive factor.

Not surprisingly given her communication studies background, Dr Natalle’ s delivery was lively and engaging, generating plenty of questions from the audience. Many concerned the present presidential campaign and what would happen, in terms of rhetorical strategies and political/social aims if a man (we all know who I’m talking about here) fills in the role of president’s spouse. I have to admit that Dr Natalle’s fascinating arguments convinced me of the fact that I, too, got side-tracked by Mrs Obama’s impeccable fashion sense, missing the subtle subtext in her rhetorical strategies, which further persuaded me of how interdisciplinarity can add extra dimension to our research. No doubt the hybrid approach that Dr Natalle presented in the lecture and indeed in the book, will be extremely useful for future research  whether we will see a model or a ‘first laddie’ at the president’s side next November.

Bianca Scoti

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Gentle Weapon: Social Ostracism as a Weapon of Massive Resistance in Montgomery Alabama

Yesterday, 2nd March 2016, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Helen Laville (University of Birmingham) as part of the 2015-2016 seminar series. In what was a fascinating and informative talk, Dr. Laville discussed ‘The Gentle Weapon: Social Ostracism as a Weapon of Massive Resistance in Montgomery Alabama.’ This area of research developed out of a book project, titled ‘Women, Guided and Misguided: Organized White Women and the Challenge of Race Relations 1930-1965’ and concerns the opinions and reactions of women to segregation and integration in the South. The paper Dr. Laville gave yesterday focused more specifically on the efforts of citizens in Montgomery, Alabama to repress support for racial integration in their city in the years after the bus boycott. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr. Laville’s talk began with an event: a secret interracial meeting of a women’s prayer group at St. Jude’s Hospital on September 27, 1957 in Montgomery. In the midst of the civil rights movement, these women, under the auspices of the ‘Fellowship of the Concerned’, met to discuss their role after a string of events, including the Bus Boycott and an historic Supreme Court decision, had brought the issue of integration in the South to the fore. With a copy of the newspaper that reported on the meeting, it was clear that these moves were not welcomed by a large contingent of the local community. As the paper reported,

Montgomery, our home town, the Cradle of the Confederacy, long regarded as a stronghold of the Deep South now holds the distinction as being the site of a recent itner-racial (sic) meeting devoted to the general theme of “the problem of integration.”

Indeed, the racism that respectable white southerners had hidden behind a veneer of civility and respectability was forcefully challenged by moves to integrate the south. For example, Car Tags were also printed in the newspaper report to reveal the names of those attending the rally. (Although it was the names of the husbands that were printed, the newspaper went to great lengths to show that no men attended the event). As Dr. Laville highlighted, this was part of a larger effort by groups like the White Citizens Council (WCC) to make a pariah out of anyone who did not fully embrace segregation.

Fearing that the wall representing segregation would come crushing down if even the slightest crack appeared, these groups moved quickly to supress support for racial integration. As Dr. Laville demonstrated, not all of these integration opponents were comic-book southern racists, exemplified by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The WCC for example, was seen as a respectable alternative to the KKK. They preached a policy of law and order, and their attempts to silence moderate women in the south tended to rely on forms of social and economic isolation, rather than intimidation or physical harm (that is not to say that all of the WCC’s supporters marched to the same drumbeat though).

Nevertheless, by focusing on the WCC’s attack on this small interracial women’s prayer group, Dr. Laville used this episode to examine the extent to which the WCC sought to define massive resistance as a socially acceptable position, encouraging women to use their social influence to exclude and supress any suggestions that the city yield to racial integration. Social ostracism became the ‘gentle weapon’ as society shunned those that supported the civil rights movement, however subtly. It was not clubs, fire hoses, or vicious attack dogs, but this form of deep-seated psychological pressure still had an impact and the pain of social persecution was very real for these women.

Therefore, in an engaging talk, Dr. Laville provided a more nuanced – and accurate – understanding of what white southerners believed and what they did in reaction to integration in southern communities. Away from the headline events of bus boycotts, restaurant sit-ins, and harrowing protest marches, the subtle resistance or support of the civil rights agenda by white women is an important and underdeveloped field of scholarship. Indeed, it is only through projects like these that we can get a well-rounded view of history.

The seminar series will continue next week (Wednesday 9th March) with Professor Elizabeth Natalle (University of North Carolina at Greenboro) 'Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics.' Here Prof. Natalle will share a case study of Michelle Obama's highly successful Let's Move! campaign in which the strategy of using co-rhetors to create communal agency for change has lowered childhood obesity and influenced federal policy for healthy eating. This will take place in Room 208, 2 University Gardens at 5.15pm. All very welcome!

Joe Ryan-Hume

PGR at The University of Glasgow